Friday, January 14, 2011

Experience and Understanding

To experience a thing is one thing, to understand it is another. Experience is foundational, hence in mystical circles teachers belittle understanding, meaning concepts; instead they emphasize tasting or experience. But having tasted, did we understand? In Zen, Tao, or Sufi circles emphasis on experience arises because would-be disciples are impatient. They don’t want to waste time building boring foundations. They want to learn magic slogans. They want something. They, too, start with an experience, a desire; they just don’t understand what it is yet. Experience and understanding: an interesting couple.

Let me trace out the process whereby we understand experience. An experience takes place in time and has a sequence. We can take it apart, examine its causes, changes, intensity; we label these, discern their relationships, dynamics, and movements. But how does this actually happen? What are these parts? What are these concepts, these tokens that we use? We might see them as spiritualized or disembodied mental representations of perceptions or feelings. And it is in the examination of these mental entities (however labeled—thought elements, language) that a strange phenomenon takes place. At some point, as we examine these immaterial tokens, a strange phenomenon takes place. Suddenly we understand the experience. The insight we gain is, however, itself an experience—and as ineffable as any other. Thus the examined experience—a set of feelings, perceptions—is re-experienced on another level more accessible to the spiritual agent that we really are. And these feelings and perceptions may arise from a physical or from a mental stratum of our being. We can also understand and re-experience our ideas, intuitions, and abstract strata no longer linked to the physical. There is a layering here. We, the agents, perceive the physical—and then do so again using the more subtle medium of thought. And it is this second process that leads to understanding.

A fascinating aspect of human experience is that we need a tool by means of which we can chop apart the flux of experience into discrete meanings, each of which can be held apart and also seen in relationship. The tool for that is language. Until the means to stop this flux are available to us, we are stuck in a relentless flow. How we came to be here—that’s another matter. I’ve said more on this subject here regarding the experience of Helen Keller.

It is good to taste, but it is best to taste again. The mystical schools stop short of that second step. Their intent is initiation into the mysteries—to help disciples acquire higher experiences first. Once that has taken place, the teacher’s job is really done. The adept will go his or her own way after that—well qualified to do so by a mind that comes equipped for understanding anything.

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